Michael Prodger

A true portrait

Michael Prodger on possibly the greatest equine picture in the history of art

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In painting, as in music and literature, artists whose work in old age is comparable to that of their youth are rare beasts: Titian, who traditionally if implausibly lived to be 99, was one; Goya, who died aged 82, was another. But of neither can it be claimed that they saved their greatest work for last. George Stubbs, on the other hand, painted the finest picture of a long and fecund career, and quite possibly the greatest equine portrait in the whole of art, at the age of 75, six years before his death in 1806.

‘Hambletonian, Rubbing Down’, which hangs in Mount Stewart House in Northern Ireland, will not, however, feature in the forthcoming exhibition of his work that opens at the National Gallery at the end of June. It will leave a yawning hole because this image, more than any other, shows just how far the artist — for so long fondly if dismissively categorised as ‘Mr Stubbs the horse painter’ — transcended the genre of sporting art.

The picture was commissioned by the 28-year-old Sir Henry Vane-Tempest to commemorate the victory of his horse Hambletonian over Joseph Cookson’s Diamond in a winner-takes-all wager of 3,000 guineas. The race between the two leading horses of the day took place at Newmarket on 25 March 1799 and attracted a huge crowd. The throng of racegoers was such that not only was every bed in Newmarket taken but those in Cambridge and in ‘every town and village within 15 miles’ as well. The punters laid some £30,000 in bets.

The race itself lasted for only eight minutes, and for most of the four-mile course the result hung in the balance; it was only in the final yards that Hambletonian inched into the lead to win by a short head. According to the Sporting Magazine: ‘Both horses were much cut with the whip and severely goaded with the spur, but particularly Hambletonian; he was shockingly goaded.’ Legend has it, erroneously, that the victory left Hambletonian a broken animal and that he never raced again.

Vane-Tempest engaged Stubbs to paint two pictures of the event. The first was to show Hambletonian winning the race and the second the horse being rubbed down afterwards. Having won the wager, Vane-Tempest also intended to cash in on the excitement and publicity the race had stirred up. He placed advertisements in the press announcing that engravings after Stubbs’s pictures would be offered for sale, and, in an effort to stop any competition, stated that ‘No artist whatever, except Mr Stubbs, has had my permission to take any likeness of Hambletonian since he was in my possession.’

Ironically, given that his habitual subjects were the most celebrated horses of the day, the artist was not much of a racing man and never painted the crowds and excitement of a race meeting. Consequently, he started work on the second subject — the rubbing down — first. When Vane-Tempest saw the painting he refused to pay the agreed fee, and, as the relationship between artist and patron deteriorated, Stubbs had to take him to court. It was only after the judge had ruled in Stubbs’s favour that he received his £300. The second picture was never painted, and Stubbs’s design existed only in a drawing which is now lost.

The court records have not survived so we do not know why Vane-Tempest refused to honour his part of the bargain. Perhaps, though, the painting itself is all the evidence that is needed. A first sight must have left the baronet shocked: the canvas measures 12 feet by seven but not an inch of it reflects the triumph in which Vane-Tempest was busy basking.

It is safe to assume that Vane-Tempest would have expected a picture of his animal in repose, his exertions over, an image of this paragon of bloodstock and the breeder’s art. What he got instead was something quite original. Stubbs’s portrait of Hambletonian is a true portrait in that its attributes are those one would expect were the sitter human: here are reflected psychological depth, physical presence and an inner life. What this horse emphatically is not is a dumb animal and a mere trophy chattel.

Forty-three years earlier, Stubbs had spent 18 months stripping horse carcasses and drawing as he went — their musculature, their blood vessels, their skeletons. The results were engraved and published as The Anatomy of the Horse. It was an extraordinary enterprise that involved Stubbs rigging up his horses with a system of ropes, hanging them from the ceiling and injecting wax into their veins to preserve them. His ingenuity was matched by the strength of his stomach: he worked on one animal for 11 weeks. Stubbs’s labours gained him a reputation for necromancy among his fellow villagers in Horkstow, near Hull, but more importantly they also gained him an unrivalled understanding of equine form.

‘Hambletonian, Rubbing Down’ is all about body language: the stances and gazes of the horse’s trainer and stable boy signal to the viewer that, after its cruel treatment on the course, the horse is in their care now and that the three of them are part of a private world; while the horse itself speaks only of distress. The boy may have wiped away the sweat and blood from its flanks but the veins still throb in its body, the mouth is still open as if gasping for breath, its hooves still paw the ground, and its neck is low-slung and ears pinned back as if still galloping.

Stubbs has painted these three protagonists against the backdrop of Newmarket Heath and, although the crowds have departed, the effects of the race are taking longer to disperse. There is something deeply accusatory about this grouping: the convulsions that rack Hambletonian’s body are the price to be paid for men’s sport. Who is the real brute here, Stubbs asks, the horse or man? Small wonder Vane-Tempest refused to honour his contract.

If Stubbs had a model for his picture it was not in sporting art but in religious imagery. In this assemblage Hambletonian takes the traditional place of the martyr, his trainer and stable lad are the attendants who care for his stricken body, his victory on the turf has been a sacrificial triumph, and the emotion the picture is meant to evoke is compassion. In Christian art the subject that conforms most closely to this scheme is the ‘Ecce homo’ where Christ after his scourging stands half-naked and pitiable before Pontius Pilate. What Stubbs has painted, with extraordinary daring and skill, is an ‘Ecce equus’.

Michael Prodger is literary editor of the Sunday Telegraph.